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  • Nietzsche, Wagner, DecadenceResponse to Katherine Fry
  • Aaron Ridley (bio)

Given how much discussion Nietzsche has received, his writings on Wagner have been oddly neglected. The final ten sections of The Birth of Tragedy, devoted to Wagner, are routinely ignored, while The Case of Wagner, one of Nietzsche’s last completed works, might almost as well not have been written, for all the notice that has been taken of it. Katherine Fry therefore deserves our unqualified thanks for reminding us how interesting, and indeed serious, these parts of Nietzsche’s corpus are, and for reminding us, too, how often his later thoughts about art are continuous with his earliest ones.1 She makes a wholly convincing case for the claim that Nietzsche’s first reflections about the rhythmic dimension of Wagner’s music continued to inform his developing response to that composer until the end; and she helpfully places those reflections within a wider musicological context that includes Nietzsche’s principal influences and successors. It is no part of my purpose, therefore, to contest any of Fry’s main proposals. Instead, I aim to do two things: first, I attempt to relate some of her observations to the more general charge of “miniaturism” that the later Nietzsche brings against Wagner, which, second, I argue makes problematic a subsidiary claim that Fry enters—namely, that Nietzsche’s discussion of Wagner’s alleged decadence can be understood in a purely descriptive, nonevaluative sense. Even if I am right about this, however, I should emphasize that it does nothing to undermine the fundamentals of Fry’s position: at most, it might suggest an interesting direction of inquiry that her argument opens up.


Fry shows that the early Nietzsche regarded Wagner as having liberated himself from the straitjacket of regular periodic structure at the local level in favor of larger-scale forms of rhythmic organization, a development that Nietzsche found exciting, and to which he attributed much of the power of, for example, Tristan’s third act.2 Scroll forward a few years, however, and we find “a more critical outlook” emerging.3 Nietzsche is now disturbed by the absence of regular periodic structure at the local level. The effect of its absence, he writes, [End Page 277]

can be made clear by imagining one is going into the sea, gradually relinquishing a firm tread on the bottom and finally surrendering unconditionally to the watery element: one is supposed to swim. Earlier music constrained one—with a delicate or solemn or fiery movement back and forth, faster and slower—to dance: in pursuit of which the needful preservation of orderly measure compelled the soul of the listener to a continual self-possession. . . . Richard Wagner desired a different kind of movement of the soul: one related, as aforesaid, to swimming and floating. . . . He is abundantly inventive in the production of effects which to the ear of earlier times sound like rhythmic paradoxes and blasphemies. . . . Chaos in place of rhythm.4

By the time of Nietzsche’s final writings, this displacement of the sense of “dance” by the sense of “swimming” has become central to a critique of Wagner as exemplary of “the decay”—the decadence—“that threatens” the very “health of modern music.”5

Fry notes in passing that what the later Nietzsche perceives as “the ‘decay’ of rhythm in Wagner’s music” is taken by him also to issue in a “breakdown of architectonic periodicity”6—that is, to involve the sacrifice of precisely those larger-scale forms of rhythmic organization that, at the outset, Nietzsche had regarded as (in a sense) compensating for the absence of regular periodic structure at the local level. She is right about this: Nietzsche makes quite a lot of the point. The “whole,” he states, “is not whole any more. But this is the image of every decadent style: there is always an anarchy of the atom, disintegration of the will. . . . Paralysis everywhere, exhaustion, numbness or hostility and chaos: both becoming increasingly obvious the higher you climb in the forms of organization. The whole does not live at all any more.”7

Larger-scale form, rhythmic or otherwise, is absent from Wagner’s music, Nietzsche has come...


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